It's National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and for many of us who are professionals in the field, this week brings conflicted feelings. I spend my life speaking out about eating disorders, have written a book about my struggle through anorexia, and coach others to find their own path out, but NEDA week means my newsfeed is littered with headlines such as “Dying to Be Thin” or articles claiming anorexia is about control. There is so much misunderstanding that comes from trying to understand. Sometimes I wonder is this "awareness" week does more harm than good? I often feel this week creeping up on me with a sense of dread.
Here are three reasons that Anorexia Nervosa is not what you think it is:
1. Anorexia nervosa is not a “modern” disorder.
The first medical description of Anorexia Nervosa was found in a paper by English physician Richard Morton in 1689, in which he referred to it as a "wasting condition." There have even been reports of anorexia nervosa in Ancient Greece.
2. Parents don't give their children anorexia.
There's nothing that either one of my parents could have said or done to me to cause my anorexia. Period. There is a genetic element for sure, but that's not to say that genes caused my anorexia, either. The fact is that at this stage we simply do not know the genetic component.
Anorexia is caused by a complex interaction of multiple influences, and new science is emerging to help us better understand this complexity. However, seeing mothers and parents blamed for giving their child anorexia via attitude or influence is something that, as a recovered sufferer, I find very disturbing and unfair. It just underlines the misunderstanding about this disorder.
3. It's not caused by a desire to be thin.
Anorexia ends in death more frequently than any other psychiatric disorder. From my experience as a sufferer, the desire to be thin (in order to look good) was a very low motivating factor. I looked good before I developed anorexia, and I look good now.
When I was six feet tall and 96 pounds, I looked like death. I hated the way that I looked and wanted more than anything to look healthy, but I could not be anything but thin. Every time I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I'd make a promise that I would try harder to put on weight. But when it came down to eating, I failed every time.
So what did cause my anorexia? Well, that's like asking someone with any other clinical mental disorder, depression, or even a severe phobia to try and apply causality. There was no choice on my behalf to become anorexic, no more than someone with schizophrenia chooses that.
I believe that anorexia has a genetic component and is sparked by environmental factors (such as intentional or unintentional weight loss), and the effect in the brains of a small amount of the population, these can cause a mental disorder.
In retrospect, I was like all the other girls in my college until one day I went on a diet because I had grown two dress sizes that semester. That diet caused something in my brain to trigger anorexia. Any other girl could have dieted for a week like I did and not suffered anorexia, but for me, this was the environmental trigger that the dormant disorder needed to emerge.
It was like the perfect storm. And it was nothing to do with the media, my parents, or the pursuit of thinness.